In Broadway’s latest variation on the time-honored Hollywood housekeeping deal, James Lapine — a highly regarded writer and director best known for his collaborations with Stephen Sondheim and William Finn — will set up shop on the Shubert lot in September.
The move, quietly orchestrated by Bernard B. Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld, is their most significant initiative to invigorate the Shubert Organization, reassert its position as the dominant power on Broadway and develop more new plays and musicals essential to the industry’s health.
Shortly after Labor Day, Lapine will move into a Shubert office and begin a non-exclusive relationship in which the company will underwrite some of the projects he is developing.
Key among his commitments is Sondheim’s new musical, which was to have premiered in the fall at the La Jolla Playhouse. Instead, that opening has been postponed and the untitled show will be workshopped at Lincoln Center Theater.
“We think he’s a man of talent as a writer and director,” Schoenfeld said of Lapine. “He works in different media and has the respect of the people he works with.”
The move isn’t taking place in a vacuum. Shubert has expanded its reach to Off Broadway by investing in the Variety Arts Theater, which looks to have its first hit with “Annie Warbucks,” a show the company also has money in.
And Shubert is a co-producer of the commercial Off Broadway transfer of A.R. Gurney’s “Later Life.” (Shubert also co-produced the enormously successful “Little Shop of Horrors” Off Broadway.)
But the affiliation with Lapine is a tacit acknowledgement by Jacobs and Schoenfeld of their need, after 30 years at the top of Broadway’s dominant theater-owning concern, to bring new blood into Shubert. It directly parallels moves by their much smaller but aggressive rival across West 44th Street, Jujamcyn Theaters.
Jujamcyn president Rocco Landesman has established loose but productive connections with director Jerry Zaks and independent producers Margo Lion and Elizabeth Williams.
And in Jack Viertel, Jujamcyn has an in-house creative director who has begun to develop his own projects. Jujamcyn has also challenged the Shuberts’ preeminence in cultivating talent working in the non-profit sector.
The Shuberts’ hiring of the 44-year-old Lapine suggests that they are acutely aware of inroads made by the competition. Asked when Shubert last had a creative force such as Lapine on staff, Schoenfeld paused briefly and replied, “Sigmund Romberg and Dorothy Donnelly.” That was mostly in the second and third decades of this century.
Lapine’s role at Shubert will probably most closely resemble that of Zaks at Jujamcyn. Schoenfeld and Jacobs hope he will develop new shows and be available for possible directing assignments.
“If just one thing eventuates that contributes to the theater,” Schoenfeld, speaking Schoenfeldese, said of Lapine, “that will have made it worthwhile.”
Lapine has an estimable body of work as playwright, co-librettist and director for stage and film. He wrote the books for and staged Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, and “Into the Woods.” He also won a Tony Award in 1992 for his book for “Falsettos,” co-written with William Finn.
“Luck, Pluck & Virtue,” his adaptation of Nathanael West’s “A Cool Million,” closes Aug. 29 at La Jolla. His films include the Michael J. Fox starrer “Life With Mikey” and the 1991 “Impromptu.”
Lapine said last week that he has been working with Barbra Streisand on a theater-related TV special and will direct the film of “Falsettos.”
Lapine emphasized that the specifics of his role at Shubert remain under discussion. He seemed comfortable with what he described as the “nebulousness” of it all.
“I think it will be good for them,” he said, adding with a laugh, “but I don’t want to run the Shubert Organization.”